The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling for an investigation into the raid on the Marion County Record, the Kansas newspaper at the center of a much-criticized police investigation.
CPJ’s U.S. Program Coordinator Katherine Jacobsen said the search and seizure of items that took place at the paper’s office on Aug. 11 was a violation of state and federal laws protecting journalists. CPJ is an international non-profit organization that promotes freedom of the press and works to defend journalists against repression around the world.
She said there should be a “thorough investigation” into why Marion police filed the search warrant and why it was signed by Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.
“At CPJ, we don’t really have a record of anything like this in the United States on the scale,” Jacobsen said.
During the raid led by the Marion police, many items from the newspaper were taken, including mobile phones and computers.
Since then, the town of about 2,000, about 150 miles southwest of Kansas City, has received national and international attention. Free press organizations and individuals have widely condemned the raid. While a few individual journalists have been subject to warrant raids, it seems unheard of for such actions to be taken against an entire newspaper in the US.
On Tuesday, the 10-person newspaper worked feverishly to get Wednesday’s edition published without their servers and other equipment.
Jacobsen said obstructing a newspaper from doing his work “does a disservice to the people who actually live there and more generally to American democracy.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” she said. “People want to have their local source of news.”
Wednesday’s newspaper landed on the doorstep with the headline “CAPTURED…But Not Silenced”.
Later that day, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced that the search warrant had been withdrawn.
In a statement, Marion County attorney Joel Ensey said he concluded there was “insufficient evidence” to establish a “legally sufficient connection between this alleged crime and the sites searched and the items seized.”
Around 3 p.m., a forensic expert arrived at the sheriff’s office across the street from the newspaper, where he retrieved electronic devices to examine to make sure they had not been opened.
Jacobsen said it was encouraging to see the order withdrawn.
“Some of the damage can’t be done, though, right? And that’s the fact that the search warrant was even signed in the first place.
She continued, saying it was concerning that the police have not issued any statement or assurance that such actions will not take place again.
“Until those steps are taken, it’s going to have a really chilling effect on general interest journalism in Marion and in Kansas in general,” Jacobsen said. “And that sets a really damaging precedent for local journalists in the United States.”
‘We intend to find the truth’
Bernie Rhodes, a lawyer representing the Record in the case, said Thursday he welcomes an independent investigation.
He also said his company and the newspaper are conducting their own investigations.
“Between all of them, we intend to find the truth,” said Rhodes, who is also The Star’s lawyer. Returning the confiscated items, he continued, was the first step, but “doesn’t end this.”
The newspaper should be compensated for the damage to First Amendment rights it has suffered, Rhodes said.
A search warrant shows that police were looking for evidence that a reporter conducted an incorrect computer search to confirm a report that a local business owner who applied for a liquor license had lost her driver’s license due to a DUI.
The newspaper had also been investigating the city’s new police chief, Gideon Cody, but decided not to run a story, said newspaper owner and publisher Eric Meyer.
Cody was a police officer with the Kansas City Police Department for 24 years before leaving for Marion in May. At the time, he was under internal review for allegedly making abusive and sexist comments to a female officer, The Star found out.
On Monday, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced that it is leading the investigation into the computer search.
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach oversees the KBI and said there were allegations of unauthorized access to the Kansas Criminal Justice Information System (KCJIS).
The KBI would not review the raid itself, Kobach said.
“Their role as I now understand it is not an evaluation of constitutional claims about the raid,” he said. “Of course, the main concern is the KCJIS system, as one of the allegations I believe involves improper access to KCJIS information.”
Although the order was withdrawn, Meyer said they are still considering filing a lawsuit.
“It’s not about the money for me,” he said. “I would probably donate it to charity somewhere. But it is mainly to set a good example.”